Thursday, September 1, 2016

CD Odyssey Disc 907: Dar Williams

As Leonard Cohen might say, I’m ready for an evening of getting lost in that hopeless little screen. But I would do myself a disservice if I didn’t do something at least mildly creative before I did that. So here goes.

Disc 907 is….Promised Land
Artist: Dar Williams

Year of Release: 2008

What’s up with the Cover? We are Groot! 

How I Came To Know It: Years ago Sheila introduced me to Dar Williams but I hit a bad record while digging through her collection and cooled on her. A couple of months ago I gave it another shot and bought a bunch of her more recent albums, including this one.

How It Stacks Up:  I’ve been on a bit of a Dar Williams binge and my collection has swelled from two to six albums in the last few months. Like any binge there is bound to be a little indigestion and “Promised Land” lands in last place.

Ratings: 2 stars

Two stars may be a bit harsh for this thoughtful, cheerful album from longtime pop/folk singer Dar Williams, but I’ve given it plenty of time to win me over the last couple of days and it has never quite broken through.

A lot of my Dar Williams purchases of late were based on a quick auditory drive-by of each album on Youtube and this one obviously caught my ear for a reason. The opening track “It’s Alright” doesn’t inspire lyrically but it has a nice jump and grabs your attention. It wasn’t enough to go buy the record on its own, so what happened?

I think it is that I have always been a sucker for inspirational folk songs. The record’s third song “The Easy Way” is a classic of the genre. It is fueled by a melody that feels like it is a birdsong from one of those tiny hedge birds puffing out his chest at you when you’re out strolling through the neighbourhood. Whatever it is, it takes great advantage of the trill in Williams’ voice. The song is about taking the high road because while you might not get what you want immediately, you’ll appreciate the journey all the more in the end. Some might find that schmaltzy, but to me it is a fine anthem to romanticism.

Also, who’d have thought someone could write a song about that old psychology experiment where they have people electrocute people because they are told to, and to see just how far they’ll go. The tune is good, and I give Dar bonus points for writing about something you don’t see in music that often – a lab test. It’s a bit obvious and the refrain of “I press the buzzer” isn’t exactly a smooth phrase to sing, but Dar makes it work by pulling all the more general themes out of the study. She uses it as a reminder not to let authority or convention make you do bad things. There’s that romanticism again…

In other places the album falls down, mostly because the tunes don’t have enough to hold your attention. The lyrics similarly meander and I found my mind wandering away from the music right at the moment it was supposed to be drawing me in. On a number of occasions I wasn’t feeling the emotional punch behind the songs either. Dar sings great on every track, but there is something missing. Even on “Book of Love” which has a delightfully creepy Nick Cave-like piano accompanying it, the rest of the song feels a bit too by the numbers.

Near the end of the album Williams covers the Hedwig and the Angry Inch song “Midnight Radio.” She does a beautiful job, but part of it is just that the song itself is so amazing. Before writing this review I played the original soundtrack recording and it was that much better. Still having two versions of a great song can’t be wrong, right?

Which brings me to the decision on whether I should keep “Promised Land” or pass it along to a happier home. Until I typed that last sentence I was going to part company with it. Then “The Easy Way” came on rotation again. Maybe it is just that I’ve had a hard day and needed a little inspiration, but I can’t bring myself to press the buzzer on this record just yet. I’m going to keep it for now and put it on …seldomly.

Best tracks:  The Easy Way, Buzzer, Midnight Radio